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Virtual reality's new frontier: peacekeeping, Iraq War therapy, and digital paradises

I’m standing in a modest but tidy kitchen. This could be anywhere in the world, but its window overlooks the bombed-out hull of a Gaza neighborhood that was demolished during the 2014 Israeli airstrikes on Palestine.

"My name is Om Osama," says my host, a solemn Palestinian woman. She’s in her late 30s and wizened; she runs her household without any signs of fatigue, despite having several children and another on the way. Around me are the signs of a life struggling to flourish, to maintain beauty and order amid destruction.

Om takes me on a tour of her daily life in Palestine. I meet her husband and children, ride around in the husband's taxi, watch the kids play on the carousel. I watch Om fold laundry and go through the weary steps of preparing to give birth while dealing with the loss of two of her children in the 2014 airstrikes, when Israeli forces bombed several United Nations schools. She meets with a support group of other women who also lost children in the conflict.

I watch her begin and end her day with her family, praying that no one will ever have to experience her own levels of loss and devastation. I’m able to do everything but reach out and touch.

Expansive new innovations in virtual reality are functioning as cross-cultural bridges between communities

I’ve gone with Om on this immersive journey without ever leaving my laptop, thanks to a new virtual reality (VR) project from the United Nations and the VR company Vrse.works. My Mother’s Wing is a short 360-degree film that recently debuted online and on the Vrse mobile app.

It’s the third of a series of VR films that the UN has commissioned to take viewers into the daily lives of people impacted by the UN’s work. Previous films have introduced viewers to Syrians living in a Jordanian refugee camp and a Liberian Ebola survivor.

Each film is designed to show viewers the realities of life on the other side of the world, and each allows viewers to rotate and see 360-degree views of the landscape they're in.

For me, the ability to navigate around the film in every scene allows me to feel as though I'm really there: in Om's living room next to her photographs of her children; on the dusty road by the field where she goes to pray with her family to every evening at sunset; in a room full of mothers coming together for their weekly therapy session to facilitate healing after the airstrikes. Each scene draws me more thoroughly into Om's world.

The UN isn’t alone in banking on the value of VR. Increasingly, organizations are turning to virtual and augmented reality to reach consumers, educate audiences, and expand possibilities for connection and interactive learning.

Many saw Facebook’s landmark acquisition of the VR pioneer Oculus for an enormous $2 billion in 2014 as the moment VR technology took off and began to fully penetrate the mainstream.

But while VR’s biggest application so far has been recreational, an increasingly wide variety of uses are popping up for VR and its sibling, augmented reality (which overlays virtual features onto your existing perceived environment), that have nothing to do with gaming. Instead, the emphasis is on using these tools for different kinds of experiences and applying them to different industries, from politics to lifestyle change.

Recently, at the Sleep Symposium in New York, I got to see one such virtual exercise for myself: After relaxing on a posh Casper mattress and strapping on an Oculus Rift, the most well-known and popular of the VR headsets on the market, I went through roughly 10 minutes of a virtual meditation in which I was transported through various digital landscapes: an empty space filled with dazzling pink and yellow lights, a palm tree on a desert island in the middle of the ocean, a Mediterranean rotunda where a calm voice intoned, "Love surrenders in its opposites."

The experience was certainly interesting, if not 100 percent transportive. The Oculus Rift technology strapped to my head and chest was bulky and hard to wear with my glasses, a long-acknowledged design complaint. And parts of the graphical interface of the meditation felt less like a relaxing paradise and more like being transported into a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper circa 1993. It wasn't exactly in my price range, and needed some tweaks before I could see myself wanting to gear up and swim through virtual nirvana every day of the year.

But it was definitely an experience worth having again, and as a non-gamer I was drawn to the potential other uses of VR that my brief meditation session unlocked. This is what an increasing corner of the VR industry is banking on — that finding new uses for the technology will yield new VR converts.

Activists are experimenting with virtual reality as a way to foster empathy

The Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) at Stanford, which studies human interactions in immersive environments, has conducted numerous studies illustrating that virtual reality can significantly increase empathic responses in its subjects.

In one study, participants who experienced the simulated experience of being colorblind in a VR environment spent more time helping someone who was actually colorblind after the study ended. In another study, virtually turning people into superheroes made them more likely to help others in real life.

"These results show that an immersive experience, where you actually feel as if you are in the body of someone else or feel as if you've taken on a new ability, can especially impact your thoughts and behaviors in the real world," VHIL director Jeremy Bailenson told Vox.

And this empathy factor is the clear driver behind educational projects like the UN's films. Patrick Milling Smith, the president and co-founder of Vrse.works, the company that produces the films, says, "Taking the viewer, literally, to the heart of a story and creating a real sense of presence in a location and unfolding event has been very successful. ... The effectiveness of helping the viewer feel and experience something rather than just watch through a traditional 16-by-9 frame is unquestionably an advantage when trying to evoke empathy."

Earlier this year, at both the Sundance film festival in Park City, Utah, and South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, Planned Parenthood similarly demonstrated the power of VR to induce empathy — and sometimes its antecedent — with its new short film, Across the Line.

The film takes the user on the harrowing journey inside an abortion clinic, past lines of angry protestors and into a clinic struggling to exist amid anti-choice legislation. The immersion includes actual documentary footage and audio captured from pro-life protesters, as well as a scripted narration of the scene and digital animation.

Across the Line's director, Nonny de la Peña, is a bona fide legend in the world of VR, known for what she calls "immersive journalism," the practice of using VR, digital animation, and other 3D tech to fully insert viewers into the news of the day, allowing them to experience what’s happening.

VR used in journalism is proving to be an intriguing front for building empathy in audiences. Take, for instance, Millions March, Vrse.works’ live, 360-degree collaboration with Vice, created during the Black Lives Matter protests in New York City.

The New York Times has also experimented with the possibilities of immersive journalism; last fall, it made its new VR app available, along with a special viewer for Times subscribers. The app allows viewers to download and view 360-degree segments of everything from music videos to moments from the 2016 presidential campaign trail.

But while Smith told Vox that Vrse "believe[s] in the power of human stories," the process of bringing those stories to people is easier said than done.

Virtual reality technology still has a long way to go

Most of Vrse.works’ stories are told using a head-mounted camera, which captures 360-degree rotational footage that the user can then experience through a head-mounted display.

The head-mounted displays are a staple of evolving virtual reality tech, and they vary wildly; headsets at the upper end of the scale retail for around $800 or higher, with Oculus Rift's latest version clocking in at a controversial $599. Meanwhile, the perennially sold-out Google Cardboard, which is basically just a folded cardboard box that holds a cellphone on which you can install and run VR apps, starts around $15.

Microsoft Holds Its Annual Build Conference Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Janet H. Murray is the author of Hamlet on the Holodeck, a famed 1997 book examining the frontiers of online media. She told Vox that despite the wide degree of variation in VR tech that currently exists in the market, we're a long way from establishing VR as a stable creative medium.

"We are at a very early stage with VR and AR, where we have exciting new technologies for recording and viewing, but we do not yet have an actual medium," Murray said. "To create a medium, you need much more stable platforms, with much more refined features, and new genre conventions that turn technological novelty into an expansion in human expression."

Ana Serrano is the chief digital officer at the Canadian Film Centre. She notes that what we have instead mostly consists of 360-degree films instead of other forms of immersive VR, like the meditation I participated in, or more fully interactive VR.

Serrano told Vox that this is largely due to filmmakers entering the VR space fresh, "starting from scratch in terms of how to conceive of VR as a digital space for interaction," instead of viewing VR as part of an ongoing, evolving spectrum of immersive media.

Murray agrees, pointing out that there are often frays in the seams of the simulated reality that remind us what we’re seeing isn’t real — "things that clearly don't work in the more filmic pieces, like edits from one scene to another, voiceovers, scenes where we don't know where to look or the action goes on too long."

"To accelerate the process of inventing the medium, it would be good to get over the delusion that this is a 360-degree movie screen, so we can take better advantage of the possibilities for active navigation and interactivity," she told me.

Serrano stresses the importance of looking to previous mediums for what works. "With each iteration of immersive media forms, we bring what works in storytelling in previous forms into the ones we are currently exploring," she said.

Serrano’s view of "immersive" technology includes a litany of things that don’t always get viewed that way: books, films, theater, circuses, theme parks, Imax, 3D cinema, transmedia (stories that play out across multiple platforms and mediums), and other interactive narratives.

"We are not inventing the VR language for storytelling in a vacuum," she said.

Virtual reality in education and beyond

If 360-degree films aren’t the be-all and end-all of immersive VR, what is?

Serrano cites the Google Expeditions project, which lets teachers take their students on immersive virtual field trips.

NASA has been using VR for educational and training purposes for years, most notably in its spacewalk simulations. In fact, at SXSW in March, NASA unveiled its new Mars Experience, a collaboration with MIT and Fusion Media that lets users simulate life on the red planet.

At Stanford, several of Bailenson’s projects include combining increased empathy with increased education on crucial issues like oceanic pollution.

Murray notes that applying VR to educational purposes may be the best way to go about establishing VR as a full-fledged medium, precisely because those uses aren’t being driven by the profit-heavy gaming industry.

"They are not as market-driven and can be focused on simulated models or detailed panoramas of spaces that are otherwise inaccessible and intrinsically worth exploring, like the inside of a [biological] cell or the Lascaux caves or the surface of Mars," Murray says.

Outside educational purposes, the scope of VR is broadening all the time. As early as the 1990s, Serrano’s creative teams "were already looking at Department of Defense and industrial uses of AR/VR for war simulation/scenario training, medical visualization, complex repairs and maintenance of, say, airplane engines, and PTSD treatments," she says.

These uses have only grown and expanded: In 2014, psychologists from the University of Southern California teamed with researchers from the Institute of Creative Technologies to launch a pair of VR simulations called Virtual Iraq and Virtual Afghanistan. These simulations are part of a medical trend known as VRT, or virtual reality therapy, which can include exposure therapy and immersion therapy.

The simulations use the traditional principles of exposure therapy to create a virtual reenactment of soldiers’ experiences in Iraq in order to allow them to deal with PTSD. Studies found that the majority of participants in the first test cases saw an improvement in their symptoms.

2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team Trains For Iraq Deployment Photo by Lucy Pemoni/Getty Images

One company, Pluto VR, is working on an app that functions as a "virtual reality whiteboard application." Think of a collaborative tool like Google Docs, but in The Matrix.

The use of VR as a tool for therapy is also expanding. Among Serrano’s projects at the CFC Media Lab is a virtual reality meditation piece that builds on biofeedback from the user to build its interface in real time.

"I think these kinds of uses will continue and will be more widely available to smaller enterprises as AR/VR prices drop," Serrano said. Her Media Lab has had a strategy in place for the past three years, involving producing, educating, and advocating for VR and AR technology.

The consensus from various creators, researchers, and developers is that the field of VR and the possibilities it contains are only expanding.

"As with any medium — television, smartphones, the internet, etc. — there will be all kinds of content created for VR," Bailenson told Vox. "Some of it will have a positive focus, and some of it won't."

In other words, right now VR developers are trying anything and everything they can to see which ideas rise to the top and gain staying power. For now, education and expansive cinematography seems to be the most promising focus outside of gaming and recreation. In the future, who knows?

For Smith, Bailenson, Serrano, and many others like them, VR has provided an opportunity to focus on positive social change through an emergent new medium.

"We choose to focus on simulations that can help the world," Bailenson said. "We hope that our work will help to steer creators and consumers in the direction of content that will help us to learn and grow as people."

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